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Chapter 2: Knitting Needles

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By: Ian Sime

This story is part of a series
Preceded by: Chapter 1: Mangoes
Succeeded by: Chapter 3: Flatbread

Separator k left.png Chapter 2: Knitting Needles Separator k right.png

Slowly, Sabrina's head stopped swimming, and she was able to think again. She immediately wished she couldn't.

Her head felt as though someone had stuffed it full of cotton. Cotton that had been soaked in wine, then set on fire. It throbbed mercilessly, pounding in her teeth and behind her eyes. She clenched her eyes shut and groaned.

Ko-Kraham laughed. Her voice was Sabrina's own, but it was strange. It was not simply that it was distant, and less resonant. It was tinged with a low, growling glee that pounded through Sabrina's head like a gong.

Ko-Kraham was somewhere in the range of Sabrina's bed, though it was impossible to say exactly where. "Yes, I remember the first time," she said. "I remember my mother had little patience for me, either. You may as well stop your bellyaching. The sooner you get up on your toes and get used to it, the easier it will be."

After that, Ko-Kraham was silent. Though Sabrina could hear the rustling of cloth, she was left to her own recovery. It seemed like an eternity before she could even begin, though in truth it was only a few moments before she attempted to right herself.

Sabrina did not roll over so much as heave herself in a direction, and hope it was the right one. There was a sickening twisting as the world lurched around her, but she quickly felt the cold stone floor press against her belly. It was a meagre encouragement, but it was enough for her to get her hands beneath herself and heave up.

Slowly, shakily, she made it to her feet. Then she collapsed again. She made another attempt, this time attempting to rise on all fours first, and only succeeded in careening into the edge of her bed. Try as she might, she couldn't manage to get her legs beneath herself. Her limbs were still numb from the pain, and her legs felt misshapen and short, as though they didn't quite reach the floor.

She steadied herself on the edge of the bed. The pounding in her skull was finally beginning to subside, enough so that she could open her eyes without being blinded by the pain. She was aching, clumsy, and still half-unconscious, but she was upright.

The door to her closet stood open, the source of the rustling sound. Ko-Kraham called from within, "Don't you have anything a bit less... garish? All these greens and reds, honestly." She emerged with a set of dresses slung over her arm. It was surreal for Sabrina, seeing her own face, her own body, moving around without her. In her half-addled state, it was almost dreamlike. "Just because you can make a dye this bright, doesn't mean you should, you know," Ko-Kraham said.

Sabrina managed to muster up the concentration to speak. "What," she wheezed, "is going on?" Her voice sent a shudder down her spine, but she tried her best to suppress it.

"I'm picking out a dress for dinner, obviously," Ko-Kraham said. "I can hardly go in these." she plucked at the plain, threadbare clothes that she had worn when she was Harinma, mere minutes ago. "You don't have much selection. It wouldn't kill you to have owned something in gold, you know."

Ko-Kraham circled the bed and stood in front of the mirror. She held the dresses in front of herself, one after the other, and sighed. "I suppose they do look good on this complexion." she made a noise of disgust. "You could have at least developed taste at some point. It's going to be months before I can move over to something decent."

Enough murk had cleared from Sabrina's mind that she could feel the red rising behind her eyes. Still using the bed to support herself, she rounded on Ko-Kraham and glared up at her. She had never seen her own face from this angle before. It was smirking and imperious—had she looked like that, or was it simply Ko-Kraham?

Whichever it was, Sabrina set her shoulders and glowered. "That's not... what I meant and you... you know it," she hissed—or at least, she tried to. It was still all she could do to string her thoughts together into something coherent, much less say them, and there was no force in her voice.

"Give it a minute dear, it will come to you," Ko-Kraham said. "Having a new head on your shoulders can be disorienting the first time."

Sabrina blinked hard and stared at Ko-Kraham. The pieces were beginning to click together. "You're... a dragon," she managed.

"Very good," Ko-Kraham said. "Well, perhaps a bit slow, but I've learned not to expect too much from you by this point." She had undressed and begun to wind the red-and-cream sari around herself. "And the next step is..."

"What do you think you're doing?" Sabrina demanded.

"We've been over that one already," Ko-Kraham said. "I'm sure you can do better than that." She slung the end of the saree over her shoulder and turned slightly, inspecting herself.

"Who do you think you're going to fool?" Sabrina asked. She took a careful step away from the bed, and managed to hold herself up, hunched over on shaky legs. "Nobody is going to think you're actually the real Yuvrani..."

Ko-Kraham had leaned into the mirror, and was inspecting her eyes. She picked up a makeup kit "I'd actually be worried you're right, if they had any reason to suspect I might not be," she said. "I'd be impressed if there were anyone paranoid enough to suspect the Yuvrani was secretly a dragon."

"They won't have to," Sabrina said. "Once I tell father, you'll be out of here in ropes, if you leave at all."

Ko-Kraham laughed. "You'll make me ruin my makeup," she chided. "I've seen servants bring no less than five meals to this room in a single day," she said. "I could keep you in this room for years, if I needed to. But why bother? Who would ever believe you?"

"I am the Yuvrani!" Sabrina said.

Ko-Kraham sighed as she applied makeup. "You were doing so well," she said. "I know you have something like a brain in there, whelp. But fine." She placed the end of her brush on Sabrina's forehead and pushed her gaze down to the mirror.

Sabrina blinked. The last of the fog had finally cleared from her mind, but she was still unable to understand what she was seeing.

It was not the lingering pain that had made her body feel foreign and misshapen. It was not her bent posture that made Ko-Krahama seem so impossibly tall. Beside Ko-Kraham, staring back at Sabrina, was a scrawny, miserable-looking dragon whelp.

She was chest high on Ko-Kraham, and even then only just. A pair of freshly-grown wings, still too small to be useful for anything but a stiff breeze, forced her into a slouching posture that made her seem smaller than she already was. Her crocodile-like scales were a pale shade of purple, a far cry from the vibrant colours of most dragons. She was a pathetic thing in all ways but one, and even that was a cruelty: A heavy crest of horn grew out of her brow, gleaming and onyx-black, like the jewels of a crown.

Sabrina gawked at the creature, speechless. She couldn't understand what she was seeing. Her mind raced distantly, searching for an explanation—any explanation—to deny her eyes, but the thoughts left her as quickly as they came, without ever finding purchase. Her eye twitched, and the whelp's did as well. She clenched her fists, and the dragon clenched its fists. She spread her wings.

She vomited.

"Oh, that's interesting," Ko-Kraham said. She took a step away from Sabrina and lifted the hem of her skirt out of the way of the splash. "I've never seen a dragon vomit before. I wasn't even really sure we could."

Sabrina's stomach continued to heave, even after it was empty. It twisted itself into a knot, and her legs shook from the exertion. She toppled backwards into the bed, and onto the floor. Her breath came fast and heavy, but she couldn't seem to get enough air. The room was stifling. Suffocating. She was suffocating.

"H-hhhhhh" she wheezed, through chattering teeth.

Ko-Kraham peered at the pool of vomit, and at Sabrina. She prodded Sabrina with her foot. "Move, please," she said. "I need to get past your mess."

"Wh-huuuuh," Sabrina said. "W-what did you do?"

"Hmm?" Ko-Kraham asked. She took a look in the mirror and gave a small flourish. "My makeup! It looks good, doesn't it?"

"What did you do to me!?" Sabrina cried. She couldn't look away from the mirror, but every movement, every reminder, sent another wash of sickness through her. She clutched desperately at her bare scalp and horns.

Ko-Kraham sighed. She spoke very slowly, and very clearly, in the tone one might reserve for a child. "You are a dragon now too," she said. Her prodding turned into a shove, knocking Sabrina out of the way, and she stepped gingerly through the clean path. "Now, unless you need anything else explained to you, I have a dinner to get to."

Sabrina's breath came fast and ragged. Her eyes darted around the room, unsure of where to focus. Ko-Kraham, the mirror, her arms. "Take it back!" she said. "Change me back!"

Ko-Kraham rolled her eyes. "I think we both know that's not going to happen," she said. She folded her arms and peered down at Sabrina, tapping her forearm.

Sabrina made a desperate, wordless sound. Panic overtook her, followed by instinct, and she slapped her hands together. Somehow, through accident or practice, she found a place of stillness inside her, and felt. She felt the breath in her lungs: the air. She felt the twitching of her muscles: the soil. She felt the moisture on her claws: the rain. The stillness filled with thoughts of Vikaasi, the mother of all that grew, the green woman, and felt the seed of power come to life in her belly.

Then she felt it die.

The power faded as quickly as it came, and in its place was a tugging sensation. The tugging grew and grew, until it felt as though her guts would be ripped straight out of her belly. She let go of the power and gasped for breath as the pain faded away.

Ko-Kraham tutted and knelt down beside Sabrina. She cupped Sabrina's chin, tilting her face up until their eyes met. "Oh no, dear," she said. "I'm afraid not. You leant me your magic, and I'm not finished with it yet. And I think you'll find that I'm just a bit stronger than you."

She grabbed Sabrina by the horns and hauled her to her feet. The pain was just one of many, and they all seemed to blend together into a dull, all-encompassing ache.

Sabrina allowed herself to be dragged around the bed to the closet. She had no strength to resist—she had barely enough left to hold herself upright. When Ko-Kraham opened the closet door and threw her inside, she toppled to the floor like a straw doll.

Ko-Kraham sighed and leaned against the doorframe. "This will be so much easier if I don't have to drag it out of you every time I need something done, you know," she admonished.

Sabrina tried to struggled to her feet, but only made it as far as her knees. "Please," she gasped. "Why are you doing this to me? I... W-what do you want? I could... I could..." She didn't even have the will left to finish the sentence.

"I'm already going to get what I want," Ko-Kraham said. She approached Sabrina, running a finger along her horns and laughing as Sabrina flinched away. "Just think of it as a another lecture. All you need to do is behave."

Sabrina felt Ko-Kraham's expectant gaze. Slowly, on trembling arms and legs, Sabrina crawled backwards.

This seemed to satisfy Ko-Kraham. She nodded, and said, "Good. I'm glad you're finally beginning to understand." She straightened up and brushed some unseen piece of lint off of her skirt. "Now, I have to get to dinner before anyone starts to wonder what's taking so long and comes looking. After that, I have something to take care of. Then I'll return to deal with you." She caught Sabrina's miserable expression and smiled. "Now dear, there's no need to make that face. I'll be back before you know it."

Then she left, shutting the closet door behind her and leaving Sabrina in the dark. A few moments later, Sabrina heard the bedroom door open, then click shut. Sabrina was alone.

She stretched out as much as she could and pressed herself against the floor. She trembled violently, and each time she brushed up against herself, each time she became aware of her body, her stomach lurched to life again.

The cool stones were soothing on her muscles, and after a few minutes the shaking began to subside. As the shaking left, so did the twisting sickness. Before long she was left with nothing but a cold, hollow ache between her shoulders.

Sabrina choked down a sob. Her mind was racing, a million thoughts passing through her head every moment. She didn't understand what was happening. She didn't understand why it was happening.

Images of Harinma—Ko-Kraham—flashed through her mind. The withered, vicious old face, and her own familiar face painted with that callous smirk. She could only imagine Ko-Kraham's true face, but perhaps she had seen it in the change.

A dragon, disguised as a human. Disguised as her tutor! Why? It wasn't as if there were no dragon servants in the first place. Ko-Kraham could have approached the palace in full daylight and asked for work, and it would have been given. If anything, it would have helped.

Was Harinma's entire life, her sixteen years in the palace as Sabrina's tutor, just an excuse? A front, until she had the chance to steal Sabrina's life? The very idea of it was absurd. And yet...

And yet, at that very moment, Ko-Kraham was wearing her face. At that very moment, Ko-Kraham was taking a seat at Sabrina's Father's right hand, preparing to eat. Sabrina could feel the faint twitching of her bones, the desire to mimic Ko-Kraham's movements. Ko-Kraham would spend the evening with Kamalakshi and Astha, and the other girls—and Taurau.

After the afternoon Sabrina and Taurau had spent together, Taurau would almost certainly want to move closer to her at dinner. Not overtly, of course. That would be improper. Even so, remembered how he had looked at her in the city, and how he would look at dinner, centred squarely on Ko-Kraham...

Surely, with that many people around, someone would notice. Someone would realize it was not truly Sabrina.

Wouldn't they?

Ko-Kraham had a point. Even if they suspected something was not right, would any of them imagine that Sabrina had been replaced, and transformed, and locked in a closet? More likely they would just assume that Sabrina was upset, or stressed. That left Sabrina exactly where she was: trapped, and helpless. Her eyes stung with tears, and she felt a lump rise in her throat.

She clenched her eyes shut, and bit back a shivering sob. No! She wasn't helpless. She wasn't some frightened little girl. She was the Yuvrani of Vikaasthan, would be the Maharani some day. She certainly did not cry on the floor.

She pulled herself up to a sitting position and grabbed her shoulders. The sensation made her skin crawl—or rather, her scales. The stiff, rough hide felt perverse beneath her palms; diseased. The bite of her claws on her shoulders sent a wash of instinctive panic through her. Although she shook violently, she forced herself to face it.

She brought her mind back to when she had been a little girl, and broken her leg so badly that the bone had shifted beneath her skin. That feeling of wrongness about it had been worse than any pain. But it had been temporary. This was temporary.

Slowly, the shaking subsided. She took her first steady breath, let go of herself, and opened her eyes.

The closet was not as dark as Sabrina had expected. Certainly it was not well-lit, but where she had expected pitch blackness, she could make out the vague, indistinct shapes of the robes and dresses hanging around her. A thin sliver of light shone through the crack beneath the door; Ko-Kraham had left the lamps in the room lit.

Sabrina stared at the door. It had not been locked--it didn't have a lock at all. Her bedroom door locked from the inside, as well. If she chose, she could walk out at that very moment.

But surely Ko-Kraham had not overlooked that. After sixteen years of lies, Ko-Kraham wouldn't miss something so simple and ordinary. The temptation was immense, but there had to be a catch. Even so...

Sabrina crept towards the door. Nothing impeded her. She reached out with trembling hands, bracing herself for whatever was coming, and touched the handle.

Nothing.

She stood there for a moment, breathing slowly. She still half expected to be burned, or flung away, or--something. But nothing came. Emboldened, she set her shoulders, gripped the latch, and stopped.

She stood, frozen, with her hands on the latch. She felt as though she had been encased in stone. She willed herself forward, straining to do even as little as press down the latch, but to no avail. Her body refused to move, even to tremble.

A feeling of sickness washed over her once more, and in a moment of panic she wrenched back from the door. That, it seemed, she had no problem doing. She sailed over backwards, landing on her tail with a grunt.

Sabrina lay on the floor, panting. She forced herself to keep her breath steady and even. Slowly, the feeling of sickness subsided, and the hammering in her chest slowed. She sat up once again and stared at the door.

So that was Ko-Kraham's lock. Had she not been so wracked by anxiety, Sabrina might have felt insulted. Making something stop was simple, far simpler than making something happen, and it was a prayer that even a child could counteract. If they had magic.

Sabrina was gentle. Even without a seed of power she could feel her connection to Ko-Kraham. She could feel that vague, distant bridge, feel the tugging in her bones as her body tried to imitate Ko-Kraham. If she focused, she could even make out Ko-Kraham's jaw working as she ate. Sabrina breathed deep and went further, praying for a seed.

Even gently, it was like touching a fresh wound. Pain lanced through Sabrina and she gasped, releasing the prayer. Her knees shook, but she forced herself to remain upright. It was a setback. Just a setback. The ragged feeling in the pit of her stomach, the feeling of wrenching in the very depths of her bones—they were no different from the closet door.

She folded her arms tightly around her shoulders. She breathed deeply, repeating the words over and over. It was a setback. It was temporary. She was not helpless, as long as she remained calm. Panic was not going to help her here.

She took stock of herself. The rhythmic tugging in her jaw had stopped, but in turn she could feel a slow swaying in her legs. Ko-Kraham had finished dinner, she surmised. That meant she was now taking care of her 'errand'.

Sabrina had no idea what that errand might be, but it was no huge stretch to assume it was bad news for her. If she was truly trapped, then the only thing she could do was to prepare for Ko-Kraham's return.

As she wracked her mind for how, Sabrina became aware of a lancing pain in her shoulders. She had been gripping them so tightly that her claws had begun to dig into the scales, and her neck ached fiercely. She let go of herself and flexed her fingers.

A thought struck her. She continued to flex her fingers, staring at the claws that tipped them. They grew out of the final knuckle of each of her fingers, perhaps half an inch long and gently curved. Unlike the claws of the craftsdragons in the city, which had been changed sharper for the sake of their work, her claws were stout and blunt, good for little more than gripping. Even so, they gave her an idea.

It was a foolish, desperate idea, and the very thought of it made her sick to her stomach. At that point, however, it was simply one more drop in a flood of sickening anxiety, and with her stomach freshly emptied it didn't trouble her. More importantly, it was the only idea she had.

She took a moment to put herself into that anxious pit, and felt for Ko-Kraham. She was still at the moment, aside from the odd shift in her posture or twitch of her wrist. Sabrina had time.

She turned away from the door and moved deeper into the closet. Dresses hung around every wall, clumping together in the darkness into a single, formless mass. Sabrina plunged into it, careful not to damage the dresses with her claws as she shoved them aside. What she was searching for was behind, and below.

A row of shelves was mounted along the bottom three feet of the wall. Several of them were lined with jewelry boxes and displays, and a few with slippers for different seasons, but the majority were lined with boxes and baskets of various description.

Many of the containers stored seasonal clothing, such as heavier scarves and shoes, or broad shawls. Others were filled with things Sabrina had left behind, but that either she, or her mother and father, could not let go of. Children's books, old dresses, toys, and other things. As she passed them by, Sabrina found herself repressing the urge to dig out one of her old toys for comfort.

What she was looking for was in a tall wicker basket, situated in the very back of the closet. She had put it there in disgust months ago, when the heat of the wet season had reached its peak, and she could not bear to look at anything heavier than gauze and linen. She pulled off the lid, revealing the contents: Dozens of bundles of wool.

Sabrina had to lift herself off her feet and rest on the edge of the basket, but she plunged into it with abandon. She dug through the wool, careful not to spill out any of the wool. In the dark it would be impossible find them all and put them back in, and if Ko-Kraham saw them when she opened the closet, she might be suspicious. Sabrina needed to work fast, though. Ko-Kraham was walking again.

It was not long before she found what she needed: A pair of long, sturdy knitting needles. Sabrina pulled them out of the basket like a sacred relic, savouring the feeling of the sleek wood in her hands. She replaced the lid of the basket and stepped away.

Although there was nobody to see her, Sabrina avoided the open area in the centre of the closet. Instead she slunk beneath the line of the dresses, holding herself low to the ground as she made her way closer to the door.

She did not approach the door itself, nor did she make any attempt to open it. She pressed herself against the wall beside it, on the opening side, beneath the dresses. Even there, her body seemed sluggish and reluctant. Perhaps it was simply her nerves. Whatever the case, she found her place and hunched down, making herself as small and hidden as possible, and clutched the needles tight. She closed her eyes, and waited.

She wasn't sure whether she waiting for only a minute, or for hours. Moments seemed to blend together in the darkness. However long it was, her patience was eventually rewarded by the click of a door opening.

Sabrina's heart leaped into her throat. She hunkered lower, straining her ears. There was only a single set of footsteps, moving at a casual, almost lazy pace. The door closed again, and the footsteps began to approach the closet.

After that, Sabrina could no longer make out the sounds for her heart hammering in her ears. Her whole body shook with every beat, and she was certain her palms were slick with sweat. Was it even possible for her to sweat anymore? She wiped her hands on her sides just in case, and gripped the needles tighter.

The latch on the closet door sank down. Light flooded into the closet as the door swung open, silhouetting Ko-Kraham. Even through the darkness, Sabrina imagined she could see that insufferable expression.

Sabrina took a shuffling, hesitant step forward, then stopped. This was insane. She knew it was insane. What choice did she have, though? Sabrina couldn't count on anyone to see through Ko-Kraham's disguise. For all that she hated Ko-Kraham at that moment, Sabrina knew Ko-Kraham was right: Sabrina needed to be able to fight for her people.

"There's no sense hiding, little whelp," Ko-Kraham said, leaning against the doorway. "I know you haven't gotten out of this closet, and I know you're going to come out here. The only difference is whether you're going to come out on your own, or whether I'm going to have to drag you out." She folded her arms and tapped a finger against her shoulder. "So? Which is it?"

Sabrina clenched her teeth and took a deep breath. She lunged out of her hiding spot, leaping at Ko-Kraham before she had a chance to respond, and thrusting forward. The knitting needles slammed into Ko-Kraham's thigh, easily puncturing fabric and flesh. Blood splashed out over Sabrina's arms, hot and wet and brilliant, burning red. It felt like fire on Sabrina's scales.

Sabrina tried to dash past her for the door, but Ko-Kraham screamed and threw a wild backhand that caught her across the muzzle. Sabrina managed to keep a grip on the knitting needles, ripping them out as she staggered away. She caught a glimpse of Ko-Kraham bearing down on her and lashed out. More blood splattered on her face.

Sabrina stumbled back. Her breath came fast and ragged, and if her heartbeats had been loud before, they were deafening now. She could no longer hear Ko-Kraham's panicked gasping. She could still see her, though. The sight of Ko-Kraham--of herself--staggering away, needle protruding from her side and blood pouring down her leg, sent Sabrina's vision swimming. Somehow, she found it in herself to vomit once again.

Ko-Kraham slumped against the doorframe and made a sound somewhere between a hiss and a howl. She held her hands against her side, one clutching her skin as though trying to keep the blood in, and the other wrapped around the needles. Her hiss turned into a burbling scream, and with a vicious, spasming movement, she wrenched the needles out and tossed them aside.

Sabrina forced herself to remain upright, and staggered forward, aiming for the door. She needed to get out. She slipped in her own vomit and crashed to the floor, but struggled upright once more.

Ko-Kraham's foot caught Sabrina in the side, sending her careening into the door frame hard enough to jar her teeth. Before she could recover, Ko-Kraham grabbed her by the horns and threw her to the floor.

Sabrina writhed on the floor for just a moment, then scrabbled forward. Though the edges of her vision were blurred, the image of the knitting needles on the floor in front of her was clear as diamonds. She reached out desperately for her weapon. Ko-Kraham's foot came down on her elbow. Sabrina cried out in pain, then again as Ko-Kraham stomped her back.

"Stupid girl!" Ko-Kraham screamed. "Stupid, filthy, miserable whelp!" She kicked Sabrina in the side, sending her skidding out of the closet. "I liked this sari, and now it's ruined!" She stormed out after Sabrina with death in her eyes.

By some miracle, Sabrina had managed to catch one of the knitting needles as she had slid past. She staggered as upright as she could manage and crawled backwards, brandishing it at Ko-Kraham.

"Enough!" Ko-Kraham shouted. "You will never raise a hand against me again!"

The words crashed through Sabrina like thunder. They echoed through her bones and blasted away her pain, her fear, her panic. All that was left were the words, searing themselves on the inside of her skull.

Sabrina didn't even realize she had dropped the needle until she heard it clatter on the floor. She tried to pick it up again, but her hands refused to work. She tried to raise her fists, but even that was impossible.

Ko-Kraham smiled a savage mockery of a smile, like a wound across her face. She lifted her hand from her side. It was coated in fresh blood, as was her side—but only for a moment. Ko-Kraham's flesh melted and flickered like a flame, and mere moments later was smooth once more. The blood around it was burnt and cracked, and the skin was flawless. Her wounds had healed so perfectly it was as though she had never been hurt at all.

"You see?" Ko-Kraham said. She stomped on Sabrina's ribs, driving the air out of her lungs. "What good did any of this do? This is your fault! This would all be so much easier if you would just! Stop! Fighting!"

Each shout was punctuated by a kick. Sabrina flailed desperately, clutching at Ko-Kraham's skirts, but the blows didn't stop. When she was finally finished, Ko-Kraham grabbed Sabrina's horns and hauled her upright. She dragged her to the mirror and forced her in front of it.

"What was your plan?" Ko-Kraham screamed. "What was going to happen, after you'd killed me? Were you going to run out into the halls, looking like this?"

If Sabrina had looked miserable before, she looked like death itself, now. Shivering, caked in blood and sick, and barely strong enough to hold herself upright. Even she could see the desperate hunger in her eyes.

"Or maybe you were thinking that with me dead, this would all go away?" Ko-Kraham continued. She was no longer shouting, but hissing in Sabrina's ear. "That, somehow, this terrible curse would be broken? Or you would wake up as yourself again? Think, girl. Think! How do you think you got this way? Have you ever known a bridge that could only be crossed one way?" Her voice had softened further until it was almost cloying. "You need me, girl. Just like I need you."

Ko-Kraham finally let go of Sabrina's horns. Sabrina fell to her knees, defeated. A choking, shuddering whimper escaped her lips.

"Do you finally understand?" Ko-Kraham asked.

Sabrina nodded weakly. "Y-yes," she breathed.

"Good!" Ko-Kraham said. The anger was gone from her voice in an instant. "Brace yourself, dear," she added, grabbing Sabrina's horn again.

A wave of fire rushed through Sabrina's body. Though it was by no means as painful as the previous, it still sent her to the floor. The pain passed quickly, however, and when it did Sabrina found she felt strangely better. There was no longer a pain in her side where Ko-Kraham had kicked her, and her headache from knocking against the door frame had vanished as well.

"I have to say, though, I am impressed," Ko-Kraham said. "I was expecting to find you snivelling on the floor, not hiding to murder me with—what was that, a knitting needle? A little bit higher and you might have actually done it!" She flopped down onto the armchair, kicking her legs over the arm. "I guess you were serious about being willing to fight for your country. Good for you. By the way, I got you a bucket." She gestured to the door, where a bucket of soap and water, and a fresh washrag, were sitting.

Sabrina stared at the bucket, blinking slowly. She looked between it, and Ko-Kraham. She half-expected the woman to explode into a rage again at any moment. Instead Ko-Kraham simply rolled her eyes and sighed.

"For the vomit," she said. "I'm certainly not going to sleep with that stink beside me all night. And now there's blood everywhere that I don't want to explain, so you can clean that up, too. And yourself, of course. Can't have your trotting around looking like you just murdered your dinner." She blinked and sat up, checking her side as though she had just remembered she was covered in fresh blood herself. She tutted and got out of the chair. "And throw out these rags. What do you do with dresses you're finished with?"

Sabrina was still staring at the bucket. "You want me to... clean?" she asked.

"Obviously," Ko-Kraham said. "Someone has to, and the Yuvrani isn't the one to do it." She peered over her shoulder at Sabrina. There was a dangerous glint in her eye. "Do I have to order you to do it?"

Sabrina winced, and took a few shuffling steps towards the bucket.

"Good," Ko-Kraham said with a satisfied nod. "You're lucky; I'm in a good mood. The sooner you start listening, the less... unpleasantness, we'll have. I don't enjoy it any more than you do, you know." She began to strip off the dress as she walked into the closet.

Sabrina sincerely doubted that. She picked up the bucket and hauled it to pool of vomit beside the bed. Her arms felt like they were going to fall out of their sockets. She set it down beside the puddle of sick and leaned against the bed, rubbing her aching arms.

"I don't hear cleaning," Ko-Kraham called from inside the closet.

Sabrina sighed, and dunked the cloth in the water. She had never cleaned anything before, and the stink was overpowering, but she was too tired to care. All of her anger, and fear and nausea had washed away. All she felt was numb.

Ko-Kraham emerged from the closet just before Sabrina finished cleaning. She was dressed in a robe of emerald green, belted by a wide yellow sash. She peered over the bed, inspecting Sabrina's work, and nodded. "You can clean the closet, now," she said. "And don't worry about the dress, I'll just burn it. If I get servants to dispose of it they'll only ask awkward questions." She tossed herself back into the armchair and laughed. "Maybe I'd have to turn them into whelps as well! At least you'd have a friend."

Sabrina didn't respond. She simply carried the bucket into the closet and did her best to clean up the vomit as she had been told. The rag had been saturated with blood and bile, though, and she was spreading it around as much as she was mopping it up. By the time she finished cleaning the floor, Sabrina's arms were coated in a film of grime. With the rag useless, she had no choice by to wipe herself down with the remains of the dress that were still clean.

She tried not to think of the ruined mess the sari had become. It hadn't been her favourite dress—she hadn't even particular cared for it—but it had still been hers. Had been.

Cleaning the closet went faster than the floor beside the bed, and before long Sabrina was finished. She poked her head out of the door, wringing her hands and peering at Ko-Kraham. Ko-Kraham was exactly as she had been, slung lazily across the armchair. If anything, she looked as though she had sunk deeper into it.

Ko-Kraham waved sluggishly at Sabrina. "All finished?" she asked.

Sabrina nodded. She stepped out of the closet and wrung her hands. She watched Ko-Kraham as the dragon pulled herself out of the chair and sauntered over to inspect Sabrina's work.

Ko-Kraham hummed and hawed, but it was clear she was satisfied with the work. "Not bad," she said. "For a girl who's never done it before, you obviously know how to clean. That's good."

She turned back to Sabrina and reached out. Sabrina flinched back, but Ko-Kraham simply tutted and cooed to her. She touched Sabrina's horns, gently running a finger down their length. "You see?" she said. "How much easier this all is when you just accept it and do as I ask?"

Sabrina didn't answer. She clenched her fists tighter, and looked away.

Ko-Kraham sighed and knelt down beside Sabrina. She cupped Sabrina's face between her hands, and forced Sabrina to look her in the eye. "I know this all seems unfair," she said. "I didn't want it to be this way either. It will get better, I promise, but right now you've proven that I just can't trust you."

Her grip on Sabrina's face tightened until it was painful. Sabrina tried to struggle away, but Ko-Kraham her tight.

"I can't have you running around telling people I'm an imposter," Ko-Kraham said. "You will listen to me. From this point on, you are Bek-Braya. You will never speak of your old life. You will not speak at all, unless you are spoken to, and you will do as you are told."

Sabrina cringed as the words burned themselves into her, and gasped in shock.

Ko-Kraham simply smiled. She stood up, brushed off, and walked to the door. "Come with me," she said.

Sabrina did as she was told, trotting over to Ko-Kraham and falling in beside her. Ko-Kraham nodded with satisfaction, and lead Sabrina outside. Together they walked through the halls of the palace in silence.

They took back ways and less-used corridors. In the middle hours of the evening, most of the servants and nobles living in the palace had retired to their own quarters, and the halls were almost empty save for the night guards. Even so, it was clear that Ko-Kraham was hurrying them along, avoiding any possibility of conversation or confrontation.

From Sabrina's lower angle, the halls seemed at once nostalgic and unfamiliar. She had been only a child the last time she had seen this view. Barely seven or eight years old, scarcely old enough to navigate the palace by herself. She had always been with her father or mother. She would have given anything to have them with her then.

Soon they had passed into a new portion of the palace on the south wing, one still under construction. Those rooms they passed that were not still open to the air were spartan and threadbare, and even in the hallways, with the exception of the pillars spaced along the walk, the walls were ugly and barren wood that it was clear would be covered by smooth slabs of stone.

The only rooms that seemed to be completed were the servant quarters. Unlike the narrow and utilitarian quarters in the rest of the palace, however, the servant quarters here were wide halls with tall, arching ceilings. Sabrina's heart seized when she realized why. Ko-Kraham lead them around the corner and into a massive, cavernous room, filled with dragons.

An entire tribe of them, almost twenty dragons total. Most were around Sabrina's age and height, though many were younger whelps—twelve, perhaps ten years old at the earliest. They were huddled together in small groups of two or three, chattering happily as they played, or told stories, or made small carvings and trinkets. An older male and female were curled in the corner, watching over the mess. Or rather, they had been. The moment Sabrina and Ko-Kraham entered all activity stopped, and all eyes were on them.

Sabrina shuffled awkwardly in the doorframe. Ko-Kraham, meanwhile, strode confidently forward and turned to the wall beside the door. "Hello, again," she said.

Sabrina blinked and peered between Ko-Kraham and the tribe. None of the other dragons seemed in the least confused, or even interested, that Ko-Kraham was apparently talking to the wall.

"I hope the evening finds you well?" Ko-Kraham continued. One of the older dragons in the rear of the room stirred, but made no move to respond to her. Sabrina craned her neck to stare at Ko-Kraham, and found herself looking into a pair of enormous, gleaming eyes.

Sabrina jumped back as what she had thought was a wall shifted and began to unfold. It was not a wall at all, but another dragon—easily the oldest and largest dragon Sabrina had ever seen. She must have been at least seventy, almost eighty years old, judging from how her knuckles hovered just above the floor. Even bent nearly double, she towered over the rest, and her tail coiled around two walls of the room.

It was no wonder Sabrina had thought she was a wall at first. Even setting aside her deep green scales that blended into the shadows, the dragon was colossal. She lumbered forward, stopping occasionally to dip and balance herself on her hands. She spoke in a rolling, smoky voice that seemed to echo in Sabrina's ears. "Thank you, Honoured Yuvrani. It is good to see you again."

"Yes," Ko-Kraham said. She stepped back and touched Sabrina's horns. "As promised, I brought the whelp I was telling you about earlier this evening."

The dragon nodded and turned to Sabrina. She crouched until her face was level with Sabrina's—which meant nearly laying on the floor. "Good evening, little one," she said. This close, her voice resounded through Sabrina's entire body. "I am Ko-Kalah, the Speaker for our tribe. You wish to join us?"

Sabrina took a shaking step backwards. "U-uh," she stammered.

"She does," Ko-Kraham answered for her. She placed a hand on Sabrina's head. It might have looked affectionate, from an outside view, but the pressure on Sabrina's head made it clear it was to hold her still. "Do you have an initiation?"

Ko-Kalah shook her head. "No," she said. "If the Yuvrani vouches for her, that is enough." She seemed to barely recognize that Ko-Kraham was there. She stared at Sabrina, eyes burning intensely though her dull expression. Sabrina felt as though Ko-Kalah was staring as much through her as at her. "Tell me, little one. If you are to join our tribe, what is your name?"

Sabrina opened her mouth to reply, and said nothing.

Sabrina's shoulders tensed. She tried again, but once more she found herself unable to make a sound. Her throat had seized shut, and refused to move.

She raised a trembling hand to her throat. Her mouth worked, opening and closing, but she still could not speak the words. Sabrina. That was all she needed to say. Sabrina.

"Are you alright, little one?" Ko-Kalah asked.

Sabrina looked up at her. She gripped her shoulders to stop them shaking, and tried again. She pushed with all her might, fighting her throat until her neck and shoulders ached and she could hardly breathe, but all she could manage was a weak, choked stammer. "I-I..." she said.

She caught Ko-Kraham's expression, cold and hard, and felt it. She felt the gaping inside herself, that ragged wound that linked her to Ko-Kraham, and understood. She looked between Ko-Kraham and Ko-Kalah, and slumped.

"B...Bek-Braya," she said.

There was a moment of silence, followed by a murmur through the tribe. Ko-Kalah blinked. She turned to Ko-Kraham and said, "you did not mention she was a Bek."

Ko-Kraham shrugged. "I didn't think it was important," she said. "Does it make a difference?"

Ko-Kalah frowned deeply. She hummed, looking between Sabrina and Ko-Kraham. Finally, she sighed. "I suppose not," she said. She tapped her claws on the ground. "Tor-Tallow, Sal-Sobin. Bring out a mat for Bek-Braya."

As two young whelps leaped to the task, a cry rose up among the tribe. One of the older dragons in the back of the room stood up and unfurled his wings, and several of the whelps slapped their tails angrily on the floor. The shouts and groans mingled together into a wall of singularly unfriendly noise, all of it directed at Sabrina. She took a step away from the tribe, pressing her back to the wall.

Ko-Kalah rounded on her tribe and let out a thunderous roar. The tribe fell silent in an instant—perhaps, like Sabrina, they had been momentarily deafened. When the ringing in Sabrina's ears stopped, Ko-Kalah spoke again. "I understand your concerns," she said. "But the Honoured Yuvrani has vouched for her. This is not Tahrasden. Things are done differently here. If they are to respect us, we must respect them. We must..." She looked over her shoulder at Sabrina, looking her up and down. "We must at least try." She turned back to the tribe and said, "You understand? I want you to at least try."

The tribe looked at one another, shuffled their feet, and muttered a few things that Sabrina could not make out. Still, they seemed to have calmed down. They slowly returned to their business, sparing only a few wary glances for Sabrina.

"There," Ko-Kraham said, patting Sabrina's head once again. "That didn't seem so bad."

"We will see," Ko-Kalah said. "Only time will tell how they adapt. I apologize for their wariness."

"Not at all," Ko-Kraham said. Ko-Kalah was not looking at Ko-Kraham, however. She nodded to Sabrina.

"U-uh," Sabrina said, when she realized. "It's... okay."

Ko-Kalah nodded. Only then did she actually address Ko-Kraham. "Thank you, Honoured Yuvrani," she said. "I will make sure that Bek-Braya is taken care of. Is there anything else I can help you with tonight?"

"No, that's quite fine, thank you," Ko-Kraham said.

Ko-Kalah nodded again, and turned away. She plodded back to her corner, where she lay down, and disappeared into the shadows once more.

Ko-Kraham patted Sabrina's head and rang a finger along her horns. "There we go," she said. "A nice bed mat in the corner, all to yourself. And even a tribe. This isn't so bad, is it?"

Sabrina stared at her feet, clenching her fists to her chest. "Yes it is," she said weakly.

Ko-Kraham simply smiled at Sabrina's miserable expression, and turned away. "Come to my room tomorrow night," she said. "I want to see how you're doing."

Then she was gone, laughing her way down the hall.

Sabrina stood awkwardly in the doorway for a moment, then peered over her shoulder. Although the words had rung in her head like a gong, it seemed the rest of the dragons had heard nothing strange. When it became apparent that none of them were going to speak at her—or even so much as look at her—she made her way inside, around the edges of the room.

The bed mat that she assumed was to be hers had been set out, shoved in a corner away from the rest. She crawled onto it, wedged her back into the corner and looked out at the tribe. A few shot her wary looks over their shoulders before returning to their groups, but for the most part they ignored her.

That suited Sabrina fine. She brought her knees up against her chest, curled her tail around her feet, and sighed. Even now, the feeling of her own skin made her stomach flutter. For the first time since she had left her bedroom with Ko-Kraham, she unclenched her fist.

In it was a scrap of fabric, torn from Ko-Kraham's sari during the fight. Bright, vivid scarlet, embroidered with golden thread at the hem. From a distance the embroidery seemed simple, just an ordinary line. Up close, however, she could see the detail. It was the interlacing petals of a swamp lily, the flower of Vikaasthan.

Sabrina was desperately tired. She was weak. She felt hollow and frail, as though the slightest breeze would bring her crashing down around herself. And in her heart of hearts, she knew that she was terrified.

But she was not broken. She was not some helpless, snivelling little girl. She was not Bek-Braya.

She was Sabrina Bunahr, first and only daughter of Maharaja Marthanda Bunahr. She was heir to the throne of Vikaasthan. In the very depths of that hollowness, an ember of fury was burning bright. No matter what Ko-Kraham had planned for her, she would take her life back. No matter what, she would be Maharani one day.

She could fight tomorrow. She would fight tomorrow. But then and there, she was tired. She lay down, clutching the rag to her chest, and let sleep take her.